Where did UX come from?

Text: David Hattingh

User Experience (UX) as a discipline has a relatively short history. Having only been around for about a century, it comes from humble beginnings. The automation of tasks that were previously performed by hand led to the machine age, which came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is where our journey begins.

Today UX focusses on the ability to think of designs (for both products and services) from the perspective of the end-user or consumer. It encourages ease-of-use for all products and services by the final consumer. This means that the brand does not merely think of an idea and execute it, but rather that they think of an idea, test it on potential users to see how well they fare, and adjust the design accordingly to make it as user-friendly as possible.

Where it started

Forward thinking individuals such as Henry Ford led the way to making industries more productive, efficient and structured. His first efforts, however, came under a considerable amount of criticism. It was said that he treated his workers as mere components of a well-oiled machine, rather than actual human beings with feelings and needs. Following this, Frederick Winslow Taylor set out to improve upon Ford’s ideas. He conducted a large amount of research into human-machine interaction in order to do so. Today human-machine interaction is known as the early forefather to Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and UX as we know it today.

Source: uxbooth.com

Source: uxbooth.com

During the first half of the 20th century, the focus was largely shifted to the design of equipment and devices that could best replicate various functions that humans were capable of doing by hand. By mid-20th century, the gap between technology and humanity was becoming narrower and narrower. Companies such as Toyota were consistently seeking new ways in which to marry innovative technology with human ingenuity in order to create more efficient processes. To showcase this, workers at Toyota factories had access to an “Andon Cord” which was a rope they could pull at any point during the manufacturing process to stop the assembly line if they saw a defect. This would allow them the opportunity to immediately give feedback if they saw a defect or perhaps thought a way to improve the manufacturing process.

Where we are today

In the book Designing for People, author Henry Dreyfuss writes “when the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the [designer] has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”

He goes on to describe various methods that UX designers use today to understand and design specifically for users’ needs. Graphical user interfaces, psychological science, and designing for and with individuals led to the discipline of HCI, which looks at design and usage of computer technology, while also focusing on the interface between the users (people) and computers. Once more individuals started gaining access to personal computers and, with it, a more prominent need to comprehend and optimise their relationship with them, it became clear (with the help of HCI) that a site’s usability and interaction design needed to be as user-friendly as possible.

Experts later explored the field of cognitive science (which investigates the boundaries of the human short term memory) and were led to believe that it combines elements of human cognition with artificial intelligence, as well as the potential for machines to augment a human’s mental capabilities. A lot of early work in the field of human-computer interaction came from PARC. The work from PARCs in the 70s gave birth to many user interface (UI) conventions that we still use today. Some of these include the as the graphical user interface (GUI) mentioned above and even the desktop mouse. In fact, the work done by PARC greatly influenced the creation of the first commercial available GUI on the Apple Macintosh. The term “user experience” probably originated at Apple in the 90s when cognitive psychologist, Don Norman, joined the company. From his role as “User Experience Architect”, the discipline of User Experience Design (UXD) was born.

According to Don Norman, “ [He] invented the term because [he] thought Human Interface and Usability were too narrow: [he] wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”

With the rise of internet in the mid and late 1990s, new occupations with titles like “Web Designer“, “Information Architect“, and “Interaction Designer” started emerging. As individuals became more experienced in these roles, a more profound and specialized understanding of the field of user experience started to emerge. Today UX is a rapidly developing field, with many university-level programmes being offered in order to prepare future generations to plan intuitive and inclusive interfaces for everyone.

Keep your eyes on the blog to find out how you too can become a kick-ass UX super star!